Honeybee Health in Virginia (Clean Virginia, Part 4)

Jun 18, 2015

Honeybees are a vital component of the production of many crops, ranging from okra, to kiwis, to cotton.  But across America the bees are disappearing in a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.  As part of our series on Virginia’s environment, WMRA’s Kara Lofton takes a look at the factors affecting bee health, how bees are doing in Virginia and what’s being done to save them.


“Caution, honeybees working,” reads a sign beside seven hives on the Eastern Mennonite University campus in Harrisonburg. The hives are part of the university’s overall efforts toward sustainability, which also included turning the hill on which the hives sit into a wildflower meadow several years ago. Seminary professor Kenton Derstine owns and manages the hives with occasional help from undergraduate students.

KENTON DERSTINE: I think to understand the plight of the bees is to understand how all the factors interact. And that it’s not any one, it’s probably three or four factors when they come together and interact create the problem for the bees.

Although not a professional beekeeper, Derstine has kept beehives for almost 50 years. He said when he first started, beekeeping was easy because there were few threats to the bees. Now, beekeepers are losing up to 40% of their hives, according to annual survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those in Virginia have fared even worse than the national average with beekeepers losing around 45% of their hives annually.

The losses are of concern not only to beekeepers, but to farmers who rely on the bees to pollinate their crops. Honeybee pollination alone is credited with adding more than $15 billion of value to agricultural crops because without bees, food production would plummet.

In 2014, the bee crisis even caught the eye of President Obama, who created an interagency task force to develop a strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators.

The task force published their strategy last month with the following goals: reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15% within 10 years, increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterflies to 225 million butterflies by 2020 and restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years. They hope to achieve these goals through research, habitat restoration, education and public outreach.

In recent years, the main suspect for the bee crisis has been pesticides, but experts such as Virginia State Apiarist Keith Tignor say that Colony Collapse Disorder is the result of many interrelating factors stressing the bees all at once.

KEITH TIGNOR: Colony Collapse Disorder is very difficult to get a handle on because we can’t identify a single source of the cause for the rapid decline in the colonies associated with the Colony Collapse Disorder. What we are looking at it is a number of different maladies or environmental, genetic, behavioral differences that have caused the bees to not perform as well as they have in the past. So in colonies that do express Colony Collapse Disorder we are seeing a very rapid decline in the population over a matter of weeks.

Tignor lists some the factors attributed to the disorder: pests, including parasites, the decrease in genetic diversity in the bees themselves, malnutrition from a lack of biodiversity, pathogens, neonicotinoid pesticides and possibly climate change.

TIGNOR: All of these things coming in together have caused this decline of the bees and it’s very difficult for the beekeepers to recover from that.

At EMU, Derstine indicates his hives on the hill. He said while he does lose some hives every year, all seven of the ones here made it through the winter and seem to be doing well.

DERSTINE: The reason, I think that these hives have done so well here is the biodiversity on campus and even within a mile in Park View, a lot of people have shrubs, from early spring there is always something I can watch blooming. Pollens from different flowers have different food content and not all pollens have the same nutritional value for bees…And then another factor is they wintered on their own honey. And most commercial beekeepers really remove most of the honey and feed high fructose corn syrup for the bees to survive or get through the winter. 

In a 2013 article, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that while high fructose corn syrup itself is not toxic to bees, it doesn’t provide the nutrients that bees need, which both contributes to malnutrition and weakens the bees immune response to other potential toxins such as parasites and pesticides. The substitution of high fructose corn syrup for the bees’ own honey could be another one of the many factors contributing to the decline.

Despite the numbers, Tignor is optimistic about the future of beekeeping in Virginia. He said the total number of Virginia beekeepers is on the rise. The increase is due to regular people, with other jobs, who hear about the crisis and want to do their part to fix the problem, which at this point may mean simply "bee-ing" present with the bees and figuring out what is causing them to fail.